when caregivers are men

In my earlier posts discussing caregiving, I tended to use “she” while referring to a caregiver. This was pointed out by a commenter, and that got me thinking. I realized that with a bit of an effort I could keep entries free of pronouns and let the reader decide what pronoun to assume. Because the fact is, there are male caregivers and female caregivers, and using any one pronoun could be seen as stereotyping or acting condescending or whatever.

So, if I use the female pronouns for a caregiver, this could be because

  • all caregivers are female and I know that and am being factual
  • all caregivers (or most) are male, but I want to be politically correct
  • I don’t know (or maybe care) what the gender distribution is, but in English, the male pronoun is default, and so, to show I am politically correct (and encourage women), I will use the female pronoun
  • I don’t know or care about the % of female caregivers, but I want to assume that caregiving should be done by females
  • I know there are enough male caregivers and want to minimize their role

On the other hand, if I use the male pronoun for caregivers, the reason could be:

  • all caregivers are male and I know that and am being factual
  • all caregivers (or most) are female, but I want to be make sure I don’t alienate men
  • I don’t know (or maybe care) what the gender distribution is, but in English, the male pronoun is default, and so that’s what I will use
  • I don’t know or care about the % of male caregivers, but I want to assume that caregiving should be done by males
  • I know there are enough female caregivers and want to minimize their role

As it happens, none of the above are true. What is true is

  • English often requires choosing a pronoun, and has no pronoun that is gender neutral for a single person. So, unless I am careful, I will end up saying “he” or “she” and I find alternating between them difficult, so I decided to choose “she”
  • I believed that there were significantly more female caregivers than male

Anyway, so here’s my rethink.

  • I have found it is not too difficult to stay gender neutral in writing. I either use “they”, or avoid pronouns, or use he/ she by reconstructing sentences accordingly.
  • I really do need to find out more about the male caregiver–their problems may be different from the ones I am used to facing (being a female)

The report from Alzheimer’s Association, 2009 Alzheimer’s Disease Facts and Figures (PDF file) gives the US data on male/ female caregivers. Quote: About 60 percent of family and other unpaid caregivers of people with Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias are women. Which means, gulp, that in the US, 40% of caregivers are men–much higher than I had expected. Definitely, the male caregiver is a significant constituency and likely to have fairly different set of social and other problems in caregiving.

Socially speaking, I believe the pressure is on women to caregive. That is, given a situation where a person needs caregiving and both a male and a female caregiver are available, the odds are the job will end up with (in most part) on the female. This is part of the social structure in patriarchal society, just as, all other things being equal, the chances are that the women will do more chores, and look after their kids more often, or give up their career if needed. This is not to say that there are no exceptions, but that this is more likely.  Some people call it male privilege (a term that is based on more seminal work done on white privilege: see article Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack (PDF file) on white privilege).

This gravitation of caregiving to females is also visible while sharing caregiving duties between siblings, where again the default often assumed is that the females will caregive (an article at The New Old Age)

But there are men who caregive, either as spouses, or sons, sons-in-law, friends, neighbors. And if a man is thrust in (or opts for) a caregiver role, societal assumptions only make things more difficult for him.

Here is an article in New York Times about gender issues for male caregivers. And a comment on it in Salon.

Note that men have typically not been brought up to nurture or empathize, and adjusting to caregiving without that, and without role models, is much more difficult. Note the lack of support systems, and the bias of support systems towards females. A male caregiver is invisible in systems, assumed to be rare. But they are not rare.

Then, also, there are men who are supporting female caregivers, but probably clueless how to do it. Most probably, this is not what they saw their fathers do. Helping nurture sick people is not something they saw their childhood (or adult) role models do.  Even if they want to help, they don’t know how to. If they are thrust in the role, they fumble more, suffer more identity crisis.

I guess if we want caregiving to be smooth and stress-less, we need to look at how to enable male caregivers to caregive better, and also help men living with female caregivers to understand how they can help. I don’t know what this needs, though. Possibly some tailored modules in caregiving training, some support group sessions focused on these specific problems, some ways to reach male caregivers who may hesitate to openly admit the role and its overwhelm. What else…any ideas?

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About Swapna Kishore
I'm a writer, blogger, and resource person for dementia/ caregiving in India. I have also been a dementia caregiver for well over a decade, and am deeply concerned about dementia care in India; on this blog I share my personal caregiving journey, my experiences as a resource person for dementia care, and musings on life, aging, dementia in India, and such sundries. More about me and the work I do for dementia care. For structured information on dementia, for discussions, tools and tips on caregiving issues, for resources in India, and for caregiver interviews, please check my website http://dementiacarenotes.in (or its Hindi version, http://dementiahindi.com). For videos on dementia caregiving (English and Hindi), check the youtube channel here.

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